Darlene Cavalier founded the Science Cheerleader to unite the citizen’s desire to be heard and valued, the scientist’s growing interest in the public’s involvement, and government’s need to garner public support. The Science Cheerleader serves to get the conversation going, rally the troops, solicit views from all sides and change the tone of science and science policy in this country.
How a professional basketball cheerleader became The Science Cheerleader
The year was 1991, I was a senior at Temple University (where many thought I dual majored in cheerleading and mixology) and I was starved for cash. I supplemented my pitiable income by becoming a professional cheerleader for the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team. After a couple of exciting years sharing the spotlight with Sir Charles Barkley, I had to retire the skimpy outfits and pom poms, as “serious” work was calling. I was hired as a part-time temp to stuff envelopes for the Discover Magazine Technology Awards. Eventually, I was hired full-time by Discover (owned by the Walt Disney Company at the time) to run the awards and to manage business development activities for the company’s magazine group.
I went on to become the Senior Manager of Global Business Development for Walt Disney Publishing Worldwide, specializing in development and strategic marketing. What a ride! I worked with some of the brightest minds in science, the media and the government to create several national science awards programs, science education initiatives and TV programs, and a series of science-themed roundtable discussions for, among others, the Disney Institute at EPCOT, Space.com, Sally Ride’s Imaginary Lines, the National Science Foundation, and the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation.
My 10 years at Discover awoke a long-slumbering love of science. And a chance conversation with an editor changed the course of my life:
Editor: “Discover entertains it doesn’t educate.”
Me: “Come on! We give millions of readers fascinating information about their origins and help them speculate on the ways science and technology will shape their future!”
Editor: “Uh-huh. Entertaining but what do you think the readers should or can do with this acquired information? Really. In fact, we boast about goals to improve science literacy and for what? If students don’t want to be scientists, what opportunities in their adult life will they have to participate in anything related to science, in any meaningful way? Yes, we can create more well-rounded, better informed citizens and that is very important. But most people see science as abstract because in many ways it is. Science information is accessible but there’s not much an average person can do with that information, is there?”
Me: “I know you are never wrong, Boss, but something’s not right here.”
I set off to prove him wrong. But I needed the facts. I returned to school at the University of Pennsylvania and dove into science history, sociology, and science policy to learn more about people like me: people with no hard academic background who are deeply interested in science, especially in its public faces in science policy and science literacy.
In the process, I uncovered a remarkable group of people I’d never seen or even heard about before. Scientific Citizens. Through their grass-roots, bottom-up efforts they aid research in a plethora of science fields by tagging butterflies, monitoring the health of water, keeping an eye on migratory patterns of birds, discovering new galaxies, and so much more.
Citizen scientists could and should do much more, though. They can multiply their manpower by enlisting the help of millions of other “average” citizens. They can push for the restoration of impartial, citizen-involved science advisory bodies and help shape public policy-to make sure that government represents the will of its citizens.
But how to do that without a process in place? That is the missing link, I realized: A process to unite the citizen’s desire to be heard and valued, the scientist’s growing interest in the public’s involvement, and government’s need to garner public support.
To help make this happen, I realized I need to combine the academic attitude of UPenn, the mass reach of Disney, and the in-your-face, pom-pom waving personality of a 76ers Cheerleader to kick-start the process.
So I founded the Science Cheerleader to get the conversation going, rally the troops, solicit views from all sides and change the tone of science and science policy in this country.
Optimistic? Sure! Energetic and determined? Of course! I’m the Science Cheerleader!
If you were hoping to find a “brief bio,” here it is:
Darlene Cavalier is the founder of Science Cheerleader.com, a site that promotes the involvement of citizens in science and science-related policy featuring the Science Cheerleaders, current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders-turned-scientists and engineers. The Science Cheerleaders perform at events across the nation to playfully challenge stereotypes, inspire the 3 million little cheerleaders in the U.S. to consider careers in science, math and engineering, and encourage “regular” people to tap their inner scientists and get involved in “citizen science” projects (research projects in need of volunteers). She is also the founder of ScienceForCitizens.net, a Web site, named one of Philadelphia’s Top Ten Tech Start Ups with a Social Good*, that connects everyday people to science through recreational activities as well as formal research.
Cavalier held executive positions at Walt Disney Publishing and worked at Discover Magazine for more than a decade. She was the principal investigator of a $1.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant applied to promote basic research through partnerships with Disney and ABC TV and more recently collaborated with the NSF, NBC Sports and the NFL to produce the Science of NFL Football series.
Cavalier is a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader and holds a Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied the role of the citizen in science. She is a writer and senior adviser to Discover Magazine, serves on the Steering Committee for Science Debate and organized an effort to launch the first-of-its-kind network to support citizen engagement in technology assessments. In addition to Science Cheerleader, founding partners of that effort include the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, Boston Museum of Science, and Arizona State University. Her dedication, impact, and innovative approaches have been featured in Science, The Scientist, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Newsweek.com, Forbes.com, Discover Magazine, Fox National Headline News, CNN, NPR and even ESPN, and many other national media outlets in the U.S. and internationally. She and her husband live in Philadelphia with their four young children.
*Good Company Ventures